What Influences Body Image?

'Body image' is the perception that a person has of their physical self and the thoughts and feelings that result from that perception.


Just looking at that definition, we can see that there are multiple places where negativity can take hold. From 'the perception that a person has of their physical self' to the 'thoughts and feelings that result form that perception'.


If someone suffers from body dysmorphic disorder, their perception of their physical self is likely to be very distorted. Furthermore, if someone suffers from an eating disorder or from generally negative messages about body size and so on, then their thoughts and feelings resulting from their body perception is likely to be very skewed.


So what influences our body image?


Family


One of the first and most important influences that we have in our lives is our family. Until we start going to school and socialising, our family is our only source of information about the big wide world. What they say is taken as truth.

If our family, specifically our parents, have skewed ideas about how a body should be, then we are likely to grow up with the same perceptions.

When we are babies and toddlers, we rely on our parents for survival, so if we clock on to the fact that our parent doesn't like something, we will do everything in our power not to do that thing that they don't like.


If mum or dad is constantly dieting, then we take the message "fat is bad", and we will do anything possible to not get fat.


If mum or dad always point out other people's appearance then we take the message "I need to look the way mum and dad like".


Let's say a family friend comes to visit and they have dyed their hair a bright colour or got their nose pierced or are wearing flamboyant clothing. Once the friend leaves, mum and dad have a little laugh about it with each other; "did you see her piercing, how awful?" and so on.


If we overhear this kind of conversation often enough, we will begin to become conscious that people in the world are judgemental and that we need to be aware of our body and appearance.


Peers


Once we get a bit older, we start school. School can be a trying time for many of us. We meet people who might come from different backgrounds to our own, and they will likely have different values to ours.


Something that is considered attractive in our family might be considered ugly by our peers, and vice versa.


This can be a confusing time as we start to develop our own understanding of our own body image. We now have to balance out what we grew up believing with what our peers grew up believing. Through this, we come to our own conclusions, some of which are positive and some might be negative.


This doesn't necessarily stop when school stops. As I am typing this in a small cafe, there are two girls in their 20's on the table opposite mine discussing the eating habits of a friend, whilst attempting to eat a Cadbury’s cream egg with a wooden coffee stirrer. Our opinions, values, and judgements are constantly being shaped by those around us.


The Media

I know I've written before about the perils of social media, but social media shouldn't take the full blame for distorted body images.


Before the dawn of social media there was, and still is, the mass media. Magazines and newspapers have been peddling body image propaganda for years. If you head to your local supermarket or newsagent and stand in front of the magazine stands, most of what you will see will be discussing the bodies of celebrities - mostly females, but sometimes males as well.


We are told "such and such celebrity is devastated with their size 10 body" or "celebrity X has piled on the pounds after a break-up". Other magazines claim to hold the secrets to a miraculous weight loss. Even more magazines tout their ability to whip you into shape through magical exercises.


The very same magazines claim to promote feminism, female power, and empowerment. This leaves the reader feeling confused or misled by the magazine itself. Is it empowering to have a skinny body? Is it powerful to be able to do 50-million sit-ups?


Social media, although not being the only culprit, is not innocent. Social media is 'the voice of the people', being that it is not just the opinions of those that work at a certain magazine or news outlet. Social media has such a great power, and it can be both positive and negative.


Social media allows celebrities to show their real, un-airbrushed bodies - if they want to. Some celebrities still airbrush or filter their photos to a point where they still portray an unrealistic ideal to many of us. Other celebrities though, have chosen to use social media as a way of debunking the magazine industries obsession with photo-shopping.

One such celebrity was actress Lili Reinhart, who showed a magazine cover and the un-photo-shopped cover side-by-side. Showing the discrepancies that are being sold to many young women.


Reinhart wrote that "to see our bodies become so distorted in an editing process is a perfect example of the obstacles we have yet to overcome."


Aside from celebrities using Instagram and other social media platforms, there is a growing list of 'influencers' and 'insta-famous' individuals who have found themselves with an immense amount of power. As we grow older, many of us understand that the images that are being shared on social media portray only a tiny proportion of that person's life, and is likely to have been staged, edited, filtered, and so on.


However, many younger people don't seem to understand the difference between these perfected images and reality. For some, there is a genuine belief that these photos are 100% real and representative of the entirety of the person's life.


If you would like to book an initial counselling session with me, please contact me on amylaunder.counselling@gmail.com


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